Monday, November 8, 2010

Preparing for the Best

A common practice of practical people is to consider the worst case scenario: to hope for the best, but to prepare for the worst. At first blush this strategy appears sound; you think through all the things that could go wrong, you develop a strategy for dealing with each of them, and then you move forward looking for good things to happen, but knowing that you're ready if they don't.

Smart business leaders who employ this practice conduct force reduction exercises long before company finances force them to do so. Smart bread-winners build cash reserves that can carry them through months of unemployment should the need arise. Doctors treating anything from Lyme's desease to cancer often prescribe the most aggressive treatment protocol possible. To be sure, there are many things that we do every day, just in case.

The only problem with just-in-case planning is that it's not free. Every just-in-case activity takes time and energy. Going back to check the locks on all the doors a second or third time. Undergoing radical surgery in addition to the radiation and chemo. Taking the extra strong doses of antibiotics. Canceling your vacation in order to build up your family cash reserves. Skipping a get-together because someone has a cold. Laying off 20% of your staff.

All these actions are prudent, but all come with a price tag. Missing the plane because you turned around to check something at home just one too many times. Spending months recovering from surgery you didn't need. Feeling wiped out for weeks as your immune and digestive systems reel from the effects of antibiotics. Landing the best job ever, one that will demand your full attention for at least twelve months, and missing both this year's and next year's vacation. Missing the best get-together ever. Not having trained staff to handle the sudden influx of work when the sales guys deliver.

Planning for the worst isn't free. In fact, prepare for the worst, but hope for the best is misleading. When you prepare for the worst, you best hope for the moderate, because the best could wipe you out.

Preparing for the Best
One of the things I learned living in the world of C-level executives and directors is that you really don't want to use the words hope and hopefully when presenting your plans and strategies. Ironically, hope and hopefully are words of desperation. You use them when you just don't know, when you've done all you can and you're letting the dice roll. If you want to get your board of directors thinking, OK, time to get someone else in here! just sprinkle your strategy presentation with words like hope or luck or prayer.

Great leaders don't hope for the best, they prepare for it. They understand the worst case scenarios, but they don't make provisions for them, at least not for all of them. Instead, they consider the best case scenarios with the obsessive attention to detail that so many of us use when considering worst case scenarios. They replace hope with planning, preparedness and calculated action.

Does it work? Not always, but then neither does preparing for the worst. The thing is, when it does work, it works big time; you not only avoid the undesired scenario, you win. Companies set new records for productivity, increase revenue and profits, acquire new markets, and so on. All by preparing for the best.

Status Quo Forever!
Another, less obvious side-effect of preparing for the worst is that nothing ever seems to change. When we prepare for the worst but hope for the best, what we're actually hoping for is maintenance of the status quo. The best translates into back to normal. It doesn't mean getting a great job, it means fining work. It doesn't mean getting strong and in great shape, it means not being sick. It doesn't mean increasing your singing range, it means being able to sing like you used to.

The constant and pervasive employment of worst case scenario planning leads us to look backward for our best case scenarios. When we actively prepare for the best, we begin to look forward to new best cases, ones that exceed our previous experiences. The simple act of even considering these more lofty goals changes our thinking in ways that may at first be imperceptible, but slowly carve away the status quo like water pouring continuously over the face of a rock.

How Are You Preparing?
As I made dinner last night, Iris walked into the kitchen dripping sweat. She announced that, after adding just one more mile to her run, she decided to add another.

As she stood there beaming, I thought about how less than a year ago, she couldn't run a mile, how two years ago she didn't sing well or play drums, and how six years ago she struggled with English. And now, wow! She sings with two bands and playing percussion with one, she's writing gorgeous English prose and contributing regularly to our blog , and on Saturday, she's running a half-marathon.

Every once in a while, she'll flirt with worst case scenarios, but mainly she's been raising the bar on her best case scenarios.

Where do you prepare for the worst? Where do you prepare for the best? What are you hoping for? How would you go about replacing hope with planning, preparedness and action?

Happy Monday,

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